January 5, 2012

My Pack

So before I get too involved in this blog, I thought I would take a second to introduce you to my pack-o-fur.

The first trouble-maker to enter my life is 6 year-old Farley, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi:

When I say that he's a butt-pain, I mean it in the nicest possible way. He's what I would call a "house-dog," meaning that beyond the silly pet tricks like dancing and closing doors, I haven't done any competition-style training with him. He knows what he needs to know to survive in the house, and other than that, his main function is to make us laugh. 
The Corgi puppet show (Farley, right, and his brother Oscar)

Farley is very full of himself. Despite his size, he's unwilling to back down to anyone, and is willing to brave being stepped on or accidentally punted across the kitchen if it means that someone might actually drop some food (nickname: Speed Bump).

Fun Facts about Farley:

This dog can hear transmissions from space, and will alert us to said transmissions by waiting until everyone is quiet and concentrating on something to issue a pee-in-your pants style high-pitched bark/howl combo. He is unapologetic about this.

This is the gassiest dog you will ever meet. Please, if you visit us, do not give him a drop of milk or a nibble of broccoli. If you do, our eye lashes will be curling for hours afterwords.

He is an obsessive licker. We have figured out, though, that when he gives us intense tongue-baths, he is actually cleaning the spot where his head will soon be resting. Apparently, he thinks we humans are filthy animals.

Farley has an auto-immune disorder that nearly resulted in his euthanization at age 2. After trying every possible drug and treatment with no success, I put him on a raw diet that I had been researching, and he has been 100% ever since.

Funny Farley story: When Farley was young, I trained him to close car doors, after struggling with grocery bags and kicking the door shut myself and then tripping over the Corgi. I thought, "Why not teach the dog to do it?" Well, that came back to haunt me. During a trip to the pier on Cape Cod, I parked my car and opened the back door to let Farley out. The little darlin' tried to be helpful, and closed my car door...before I had gotten the keys out. It was more than a little embarrassing to tell the locksmith how my dog had locked my keys in the car.

Next in line comes my once-in-a-lifetime dog, Carbon vom Kraftwerk, a working-line German shepherd:

14 weeks
From the moment I got him at 8 weeks of age, I knew this dog was different. Confident, brilliant, drivey and hilarious, this guy made me earn his respect...but once I did, a bond developed that won't ever be broken.
Carbon is now 5 years old, and has had Schutzhund training, narcotics training and Personal Protection training. I was offered a ridiculous amount of money to sell him to a Boston police department, but I declined. Naturally. This dog goes nowhere if it isn't with me.

Carbon has had formal training, yes. But what really impresses me about him are these two things:

1.) His ability to understand what I want with little indication from me. I can just look at him in a certain way, or I can speak in complete sentences (no need for a command or cue, even though he knows them). After over 19 years of working with dogs, he comes the closest to human intelligence in a dog that I have encountered. And I've met some smart, smart dogs.
2.) His sense of humor. There have been countless times that this dog has me clutching my stomach in laughter after being awake for mere minutes.

Click HERE for a 30 second video of Carbon that is sure to make you smile.

I hate to give the impression that Carbon is perfect. Far from it. He's pushy, opinionated and often obnoxious. But he's perfect for me. There's a saying in dog training that you don't get the dog you want...you get the dog you need. In this case, I got both. I've learned far more from him than he's ever learned from me. 
8 weeks

Carbon's ball obsession has gotten him into hot water

At 18 months, with a sea shell that he inexplicably adopted.
Carbon at 8 weeks, my son at 6 years.
Schutzhund training in Texas with Rob Dunn
Fearless in his searching
More Schutzhund training. 18 months of age.
And people wonder why his neck is so big...

And finally, meet the smooth coated Border Collie, Fizz.

Fizz was a dog I rescued in Texas. She was discovered at a nightmare of a training facility: she was used for narcotic detection, and was only let out of the cage to train. No dog does well in constant confinement, but Border Collies are especially effected. She would spend her time chewing on the cage, and as a result, snapped off one of her canines (which had to be removed).

Me and Miss Fizz, off-leash healing exercise

After I received Fizz, I trained her in agility, Search and Rescue, Schutzhund BH, and AKC obedience. She was also my demonstration dog for training classes and seminars and clicker training, and showed a remarkable ability to rehab aggressive or fearful dogs.

Fizz is aptly named, as she is a ball of fire! She's always happy...relentlessly happy! Nothing gets this dog down!

When I decided to relocate from Cape Cod to St. Louis, I had a difficult decision to make. Fizz is an asset to both my training business and my life, but requires a huge amount of exercise. Walks and fetch just aren't enough for this girl.

One of my best friends is a marathon runner, and had been training with Fizz for over two years, developing a strong bond. Since exercise is paramount to Fizz's happiness, I decided to "time-share" her with my friend. She is currently living in Cape Cod with him, still enjoying her runs and her life.

Fizz, pictured here with her marathon running buddy, Eric.

That's it for the dogs! For those of you interested in my non-canine animal companions, here's a quick look at my 3 ferrets: Alan (albino), Steve (sable) and Tesla (champagne):

January 4, 2012

Advice for training abused or neglected rescued dogs

I recently got an e-mail from a friend who was asking for help for her rescued pit bull. Here's an excerpt from the e-mail (edited for privacy):

"Hey Amber, I have a 1 year old pit bull. I've had her for 6 months. She came from a horrible situation.  She was bred to fight (although I don't think she ever did), and was abandoned with two other pits and some cats in a north side house for a month with no food and only toilet water. She was bone-skinny when I got her (she was only at the rescue for 2 days), and she had mange and open sores all over her body."

My friend is now looking to socialize this dog, and teach her some basic obedience so as to make her more adoptable. Currently, the dog has issues with people, especially men, that my friend believes (quite correctly) are because of fear issues. Apparently, she is also fearful out in public...a sure sign of bad socialization.

I wish I could say that I've never had to work with dogs in this situation. Unfortunately, I have...too many times to count. The sad truth of the matter is that thousands of dogs of all breeds and mixes are euthanized every day (without even being put up for adoption), because of issues like the ones my friend described. There are simply too many dogs needing homes and even the best behaved dogs aren't guaranteed an adoption. The fact that this dog is a pit bull only makes matters worse.

Even a well-socialized, well-trained pit bull faces a difficult time being adopted due to stereotypes, media hype and breed specific legislation. Many people aren't willing to deal with the backlash that often comes from owning a well-behaved pit bull, much less one that comes prepackaged with major socialization, fear and reactivity issues.

I say all of this not to discourage rescuers, foster parents, or new owners of pit bulls. In fact, I applaud your efforts and the commitment you are making to a much maligned breed. Instead, the point of this post is to give some advice on how to go about rehabilitating a dog with these kinds of issues.

I would like to point out that these techniques are applicable to any breed of dog with these issues. The only real difference is that when you have a pit bull (or any other breed that is likely to intimidate people), it is even more important that your dedication to the training is 100%. As anyone familiar with pits will tell you, there will be no forgiveness from the public if your dog acts aggressively. There are often no second chances. This is not training to be taken as a hobby or as something to do in your free time. Finally, these tips are not intended to be all-inclusive. If you have specific problems with your dog, always err on the side of caution and see an experienced professional dog trainer.

Now that the lecture is over, let's move on to some important points.


All too often, people are failing in their rehabilitation of dogs because they are trying to make up for the awful things that have happened to the dog before they got them. The truth of the matter is that the training is the same regardless of the dog's past. The dog is conditioned by his past history, yes. But he can be counter-conditioned, too. Being too soft and accommodating to a fearful, under-socialized dog only reinforces the very behavior you are trying to change.

Some of the dogs that I have worked with have heartbreaking stories. Stories that make you want to cry or fight or both. However, those are my issues, not the dog's. I cry, rage or vent about them with my human friends. With dogs, I am the same consistent leader I am with dogs who have been spoiled since whelping. All dogs need consistent, strong leaders that they can depend on, but dogs with issues need it even more. The best gift you can give a dog who has been abused is to treat him like a dog, not a human. Trust me-- a strong, consistent and fair leader is what these dogs need.

#2: USE MARKING TRAINING ("clicker" training) 

No two dogs are the same, and no two training plans should be identical, either. That being said, when working with reactive or fearful dogs, bolstering the dog's sense of confidence is vital. 9 times out of 10, even an aggressive dog is acting out of fear (remember fight or flight?). As counter-intuitive as it seems to some people, increasing a dog's confidence frequently decreases aggressive behavior.

To bolster a fearful dog's confidence, marker training is the way to go. This type of training involves no physical corrections and allows the dogs to go at their own pace and comfort level. For an excellent article on marker training, click here.

A new handler may have to adjust to the timing needed to master marker training, but mistakes will not harm your dog. In this style of training, the dog is simply trying to figure out what they need to do to make the hairless monkey (you) drop the food. By doing so, they lose their helplessness, insecurity and defensiveness. As a bonus, marker training is fun for you, too.


Done correctly, this type of training is even effective on goldfish and reptiles. It will work with your dog if you are patient and consistent.


Often times, a dog's behavior is a result of her negative past conditioning. But keep in mind, many of these dogs were poorly bred, too, without consideration to the temperament or mental stability of the parents. Often, the goal of bad breeders is simply to produce more dogs. Therefore, be aware that there is a real possibility that your dog may always be a little skittish. Your dog may always be slower to relax in new situations. That's okay. The goal here is not to turn a VW into a Porsche, but instead to make it the best damn VW you can possibly have.

A reasonable training goal for anyone rehabilitating a pit bull or any other rescue dog, is to pass the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test. Read about the requirements here. This is not a difficult test to pass with consistent training, and it gives you a clearly defined goal when working with a dog. It has other benefits, too: A dog with a AKC CGC certification is occasionally allowed in homes with insurance that normally bans certain breeds. It also gives a landlord more confidence when renting to you. And finally, and most importantly, it dramatically increases the odds of finding a forever home for your rescue or foster dog. The test is inexpensive, and like me, many professional trainers offer classes or private sessions to help dogs pass the test, or you can have some fun training the dog yourself.

Finally, I want to send a big thank you out to the fantastic people, like my friend, who take in abused, homeless, or neglected animals for no other reason than to help make a furry life better. You may not change the world, but you will change that dog's world.


January 3, 2012

The 3 Most Important Things to Know When Trying to "Speak Dog."

One of the most important things a new dog trainer can learn are the three main principles in dog training:  timing, consistency and motivation.
Armed with these three principles, you can train a dog to do just about anything! If you are ever finding yourself having difficulty in training, or if it seems to you that your dog is confused, ask yourself if you have fully observed these three concepts.
A dog has a period of 1.3 to 1.5 seconds in which to associate a cause with its effect. This means that the saying “catch them in the act” is absolutely true! This applies to both corrections and rewards and praise.
With rewards, it’s necessary to provide the dog with the reward at the exact moment the dog does what you like. If you’re teaching a “sit,” for example, you would want to provide the reward at precisely the moment the dog’s rear end hits the floor.
This is usually very difficult, however -- by the time you have fetched the treat out of your pocket and moved towards the dog, the dog is now standing! And since we know that the dog associates the reward with what they were doing at the exact moment they received it, the dog will associate the reward with the standing, not the sitting you were trying to teach!
This is why the advent of training with markers has become so popular; by teaching a dog that a word or a click is followed by a reward, it becomes much easier for the trainer to tell the dog exactly what it has done that has earned him a valuable reward. It is a highly effective way to communicate with a dog.
While a mistimed reward slows down learning, too many mistimed corrections can have even greater consequences.  To correct a dog for breaking a “sit-stay” five seconds after he got up is meaningless. Again, the dog will believe he is being corrected for whatever he was doing at the moment he got up. If he gets up from his “sit-stay” and comes to you and you then correct him, he will think he is being corrected for coming to you.
Also, too many mistimed corrections and your dog may begin to think that nothing they do is ever right, and they will shut down. This is called learned helplessness. Some dogs labeled submissive are actually not submissive by nature, but have acquired learned helplessness through bad training. It makes the dog insecure and it makes you seem unpredictable and untrustworthy…and possibly scary. You can see how this could be detrimental – Mistimed corrections can not only slow down learning, they can also harm the relationship between you and your dog.
When training a dog, you must be very clear. There is no grey area. A rule is a rule is a rule. This means that if you do not want your dog to jump up on you when it’s raining and they have muddy feet, then they cannot be rewarded for doing it (by pats or verbal praise) when it is sunny out.
If you’re in a great mood because you just got a promotion at work, you may happily greet your dog when they jump up on you when you get home. However, don’t be surprised when your dog doesn’t understand why you yell at them for jumping on you the next day when you're not feeling so happy.
A dog that is allowed to jump on adults will not understand that they cannot jump on children or the elderly. Likewise, a puppy that is rewarded constantly for jumping up will turn into an adult that doesn’t understand why the rules have suddenly changed.
Again, this does more than make your dog confused on the issue of jumping, it can also make you seem unpredictable and untrustworthy. You must strive to be 100% consistent in your training! This will result in a dog that feels safe and secure knowing that there are well-defined rules and boundaries in their life with you and your family. As a bonus, you’ll also have a dog that doesn’t jump up on people… because they never get rewarded for it!
A simple way to understand the concept of motivation is that a positive consequence makes a behavior continue and a negative consequence makes a behavior stop.
You communicate with your dog with praise and rewards when they do something you like. As a result, the behaviors that you reward will begin to occur more often. You communicate with corrections (a verbal “NO!,” a leash correction or withholding of the reward, etc.) when they make mistakes, or are breaking clearly defined rules. As a result, the behaviors you correct (if they are timed correctly!) will begin to decrease in frequency.
Both rewards and corrections must be motivational to the dog. You want your communication to be meaningful. That means that your rewards must be good enough that the dog is inspired to strive for it in the future. For example, if a dog doesn’t like to be petted on the head and that is the reward you use when he does something correctly, you have actually provided a negative experience for your dog!
If you are in a high-distraction environment, the reward you use for ignoring the distraction has to higher than the promise of the rewards the dog would get from paying attention to the distractions! You should know that some dogs prefer a game of fetch or tug to food, while others live for praise. Some dogs prefer Cheerios over steak! Let your dog tell you what they like…do not put your own preferences on your dog if you want your training to work well.
A correction should be enough to stop the behavior…no more and no less.
As you train, think of these factors: If your dog is not responding or is acting stressed or confused, ask yourself whether you are really being clear with your dog. Does your training fall into harmony with these three concepts: Is your timing correct? Is your training motivational? Are you being 100% consistent? If you are not answering “yes” to all of these questions, you cannot expect miracles from poor Fido. Practice every day!
**If you have any questions you would like addressed on my blog, please send an e-mail to: amber@HigherGroundDogs.com and put BLOG in the subject box.**